Agriculture goes high tech, as Facebook and search engines join point-of-purchase promotions.
Originally printed in the May 2022 issue of Produce Business.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services leaves no stone unturned when it comes to promoting the state’s enviable variety of fruits and vegetables.
For example, award-winning executive chef Justin Timineri serves as Florida’s state chef and culinary ambassador, creating recipes featuring Florida produce items as they reach peak season.
And huge crowds are noticing the recipes via social media.
“Fresh From Florida has more than 430,000 social media followers and a state chef who regularly creates new recipes using Florida-grown products,” says Donna Watson, industry communications representative at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, FL.
By participating in the state’s retail incentive program, retailers can use these recipes and the widely recognized Fresh From Florida logo in promotions, she adds.
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become as important in state agriculture promotion campaigns as point-of-sale signage announcing Fresh From Florida or Georgia Grown.
The Georgia Grown Facebook page invited residents to a Jan. 15 Country Moosic Night at the Centreplex in Macon. The pioneer of state agriculture promotion programs, Jersey Fresh maintains a Facebook page, recently used to announce that Jersey Fresh Dover sole, skate, plaice, red mullet, rock salmon, monkfish and scallops were available at Lucas Bros.’ farm shop. And North Carolina has a Facebook page for its annual Got to Be NC festival.
Some states with a diverse harvest use high tech to offer searchable databases that let retailers and consumers quickly see which growers or shippers are offering a particular produce item.
North Carolina’s NC Fresh Link search engine, for example, lets the user enter a particular fruit, vegetable or herb, and see a list of farmers offering that item in either conventional or organic.
This service reflects the diversity of the state’s agriculture, and harvest seasons that vary by regions.
“North Carolina is the third most diverse state agriculturally, after California and Florida,” says Tom Fleetwood, marketing supervisor at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Raleigh, NC. “We produce a lot of different produce items. We have a broad geographical region, so we can stay in the market longer than a lot of areas.”
The state is among the top five in production of sweet potatoes; turkeys; hogs and pigs; broiler chickens; cucumbers, peanuts, upland cotton, bell peppers and burley tobacco.
For some important green vegetables, like collards, cabbage and broccoli, North Carolina has two harvests a year. But potatoes are available out of North Carolina only over a short season because the state is unique in not putting them into storage for weeks or months after harvest.
“We harvest in June and July and sell directly to the markets,” Fleetwood says. “Nothing is in storage.”
Seasonal availability information is crucial for Florida, because many retailers and consumers wait for the state to harvest the first domestic fruits and vegetables.
Florida ranked first in the United States in the value of production for bell peppers, fresh market tomatoes, grapefruit, oranges, sugarcane and watermelons; second in the value of production for fresh market sweet corn and strawberries; and third in fresh market cabbage.
A convenient seasonal shopping list begins in November with avocados, tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, squash, oranges and tangerines, and continues through September when avocados, mushrooms, citrus, and peanuts from Florida are all available. The state also has a searchable database of in-season produce.
“As Florida’s products are first in season domestically, it’s important for shoppers to know when these products are in season and available in stores,” Watson says. “All Florida commodities featured through the retail incentive program benefit from the promotions, as the program maximizes sales during peak season for each product.”
Even states with shorter harvest seasons offer internet guides to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Building relationships between growers and retailers is fundamental to many state departments of agriculture.
The Ohio Proud website has a new page called Savor Ohio Flavors, which highlights farmers markets, retailers and restaurants that carry fresh, local product, according to Ashley McDonald, Ohio Proud program manager at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Columbus, OH. “We’ll be adding to this resource later this year and expanding the information about farmers markets and U-pick agritourism sites, which will target berries, apples, pumpkins and more.”
The Ohio vegetable season is extended using climate-controlled greenhouses.
“Ohio’s climate doesn’t allow us to do much in the way of local produce promotion this time of year [winter/early spring],” says McDonald. “Ohio does have a few major greenhouse facilities such as NatureFresh in Delta, Ohio. The NatureFresh facility can grow a wide variety of tomatoes in a 45-acre greenhouse throughout the winter. Their product wears the Ohio Proud label, which is a win-win for everyone — retailers can still have a local produce presence in the dead of winter and NatureFresh can stand out as the local option during a time of year where retailers are usually carrying produce from out-of-state warmer climates.”
KNOW YOUR FARMER
In the 1960s and ’70s, Japan’s community supported agriculture (CSA) movement was called teikei, which means literally “putting the farmer’s face on food.” And this concept of knowing the grower is an important appeal of state agricultural promotion programs, as many consumers prefer to support neighboring farming communities.
“Right now, we’re reviewing some brand new retail merchandising materials for 2022, including beautiful new signage featuring South Carolina farmers,” says Katie Pfeiffer, market development manager at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC. “A major focus of the program is supporting retailers in offering South Carolina produce at peak ripeness throughout the year — which benefits everyone.”
South Carolina started its program just six years ago, making it one of the newest in the country.
“We promote Certified South Carolina through social media, advertising, events, sponsorships and more. Retail merchandising materials are a major component of the program,” says Pfeiffer, adding they are currently revamping a grant-supported marketing campaign that will focus on consumer education, including helping consumers understand country of origin and how to choose both local and regional produce.
“Increased consumer awareness will positively impact local food consumption, profitability for SC specialty crop growers, and increase local food demand at major retailers.”
The appeal to local pride and loyalty is working wonders in South Carolina. Pfeiffer cites one study that found the Certified South Carolina brand has an 80% recognition rate statewide, and a 2020 economic impact study found that South Carolinians purchased $176.3 million more from South Carolina farmers in 2018 than they did in 2010 across all Certified South Carolina food categories.
“That accounts for an additional $273.5 million in economic activity, 1,615 jobs and $51.2 million in labor income for South Carolinians each year,” she emphasizes. “In other words, Certified South Carolina is working — for our state and for the produce industry.”
Jersey Fresh has adroitly appealed to the desire for local produce by letting consumers in the nation’s largest metropolis know they do not have to wait for trucks from Florida or California to bring their fruits and vegetables.
“Our Jersey Fresh program helps retailers provide their customers with produce that is often picked, packed and shipped the same day and can be in stores in 24 hours, in many cases,” says Fisher.
New Jersey has the good fortune of producing a variety of produce just across the river from millions of consumers.
“With over 20,000,000 consumers in New Jersey and the adjacent demographic areas, we focus the majority of our marketing efforts in the immediate tri-state area,” says Fisher.
New Jersey is known for its sweet corn, tomatoes and blueberries, but the state’s farmers grow over 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables, says Fisher, adding New Jersey ranks in the top 10 in several, such as eggplant, squash, peppers, spinach, asparagus, cranberries, blueberries, peaches, and corn and tomatoes.
As the U.S. enters a period when high prices for fuel and fertilizer, and supply chain disruptions threaten the stability of food supplies, this closer relationship with farmers could become important.
“In a world of supply chain blockages, New Jersey farmers are ready to deliver the goodness to customers in hours,” says Douglas Fisher, secretary of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. “There are no supply chain logjams when it comes to sourcing Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables.”
New Jersey has the longest running agricultural promotion campaign of all the states, as Jersey Fresh began in 1983, but the message still appeals to consumers.
“We all know that consumers continue to look for local produce in ever-increasing numbers,” says Fisher. “A campaign by stores promoting local, fresh fruits and vegetables satisfies consumer demand and can help the bottom line, as surveys conducted by a third-party research firm show that customers familiar with New Jersey’s Jersey Fresh brand are strongly motivated to purchase Jersey Fresh when it’s advertised as such in-store.”
The program enlists the aid of supermarket retailers, who share an interest with the farmers in promoting locally sourced produce.
“We reach out to retailers to offer assistance in creating relationships with New Jersey’s growers and to offer them point-of-purchase materials such as banners, price cards, aprons, and hats, to name a few,” says Fisher. “We are also available to coordinate farm tours, should retailers be interested in seeing operations here in the Garden State.”
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture works to help retailers and farmers develop relationships.
“We have marketing people in Raleigh who help the growers and shippers meet one-on-one with produce buyers,” Fleetwood says. “Consumers have more interest in knowing where their produce is grown than they did 10 years ago.”
Retailers are equal partners with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture in promoting that state’s farm products.
“We primarily collaborate with retailers through the Wisconsin Grocers Association to promote purchasing locally, Wisconsin-made products,” says Morgan Cavitt, public information officer in the division of agricultural development of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “We participate in their annual WI Grocers Conference trade show and provide Something Special from Wisconsin point-of-sale materials for the retailers and producers to display in-store, drawing the consumer’s eye into easily locating Wisconsin products on the store shelves.”
Residents of farm states like Wisconsin often take a special pride in supporting their agricultural products and the communities that produce them.
“In Wisconsin, buying locally made products and supporting farm families is important to retailers and consumers alike,” says Cavitt. “We work collectively to draw attention to retailers that carry and promote Wisconsin products, including organized tasting events to draw consumers to retailers. The program also assists them with locating specific products they want to bring into their stores, but may not be able to find on their own or through their distribution channels.”
Building relationships between growers and retailers is fundamental to many state departments of agriculture.
“We also support retailers by connecting them with producers,” says Pfeiffer. “This year, we expanded on the success of our Grower-Buyer Mash Up events with the Certified SC Showcase, a two-day trade show and educational and networking event to connect buyers with South Carolina growers and products.”
While Jersey Fresh and other state promotion programs invite support of farmers just up the road, they also build brand identity with corporate retailers a thousand miles away.
“Our farmers also ship up and down the Eastern Seaboard and into Eastern Canada, so we extend our reach into those areas as well via print ads, social media and attending trade shows,” says Fisher.
Just as California has built brand recognition for supplying fruits and vegetables over a long season, other states with coastal climates also ship produce long distances.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has relationships with more than 100 retailers with over 1,200 stores that use circular ads, point-of-purchase materials and in-store samplings to encourage customers to buy Fresh From Florida produce, according to Donna Watson.
The program reaches retailers and consumers on the Eastern Seaboard into Canada, and south to the Caribbean and Latin America, emphasizing information on the peak seasons of a lengthy list of Florida fruits and vegetables.
“The Fresh From Florida program runs alongside Florida’s peak seasons to assist our retail partners in marketing Florida commodities in various ways,” Watson says.
“The Division of Marketing and Development maintains close relationships with retail partners and can aid on sourcing products and finding new commodities to promote. We can also assist with social media promotions, recipe development, and ideas for innovative ways to promote Florida produce.”
There is regional cooperation among Southeastern states that compete for markets with Mexico and California.
“Our Certified South Carolina program is all about encouraging consumers to buy in-state products and appreciate the seasonal bounty of our beautiful state,” Pfeiffer says, “but we have made a big push over the past few years to work with South Carolina’s neighboring states to promote produce from a regional perspective.
“We attend trade shows, including the New York Produce Show, International Fresh Produce: Global Produce and Floral Show, Southeastern Produce Council: Southern Exposure and Southern Innovations, Carolina Food Industry Council Annual Convention — and we bring producers along with us,” says Pfeiffer. “Last year, we launched the Market Development Trade Show and Educational Conference Cost Share Program, which is using Specialty Crop Block Grant funds to offer partial funding for producers to attend certain trade shows and conferences.”
Other Southeastern states are also finding produce markets up the coast and across the border.
“We export a lot of produce to Canada,” says Fleetwood, from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “We have some items that go to the Midwest, others from Florida to Nova Scotia.”
North Carolina emphasizes a strong presence at trade shows up and down the Atlantic seaboard, too, from Southern Exposure in Orlando to the Canadian Marketing Association.
Retailers appreciate this development of a major regional produce source over a long season.
“When we work with out-of-state buyers, we find they appreciate that we are coordinating with other states to promote the whole Southeast,” says Pfeiffer. “Thinking regionally helps reduce risk for buyers and expands opportunities for South Carolina producers. And when a buyer knows they can source from the whole Southeast region, they are less likely to seek produce from the West Coast or outside the U.S. We see the entire East Coast as our market — and we make sure South Carolina is represented where it counts.”
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Georgia Grown: Peaches, Sweet Onions and a Whole Lot More
While Georgia peaches and Vidalia onions have strong U.S. and international reputations, the state has developed a diverse farm economy producing many fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products.
Georgia leads the nation in peanuts, broiler chickens, pecans, blueberries and spring onions, and is also at or near the top when it comes to cotton, watermelon, peaches, eggs, cucumbers, sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes, rye and cabbage.
“Consumers across the country value produce that is grown in Georgia.” says Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta, GA. He cites a fall 2021 study of 5,000 consumers east of the Mississippi, that found more than 55% of consumers view Georgia as an ideal state for growing produce due to its climate and rich soil.
“Consumers will pay a premium for produce that they know is grown in Georgia compared to generically branded produce,” Kulinski adds. “Georgia Grown coordinates with all types of retailers to provide point-of-sale signage and other promotions to highlight produce that is grown in Georgia.”
Like Florida, much of Georgia’s stiffest competition in fruits and vegetables comes from imports.
“Several Georgia fruits and vegetables are facing strong competition from imported products from Mexico,” says Kulinski. “Our advertising campaigns, including ‘Buy American, Choose Georgia Grown,’ are designed to help our local produce compete with the foreign products. These campaigns have been successful in promoting the sales of Georgia blueberries, pecans, bell peppers, and other southern regional fruits and vegetables.”
Few produce items have better geographic brand recognition than Vidalia sweet onions or Georgia peaches.
“We feel like Georgia peaches are a national brand, and even up into Canada,” says Will McGehee, marketing director of The Georgia Peach Council, Fort Valley, GA. “We suggest retailers say, ‘These are Georgia peaches, eat them and be happy.’”
But even peach growers benefit from the promotional efforts of Georgia Grown.
“They are a force within the retail community,” McGehee says. “They work with retailers on point-of-sales materials, and we put the logo on our boxes and packaging. Georgia Grown provides grounding. It gives us a platform.”
Georgia Grown dues are on a sliding scale, with producers grossing less than $100,000 in sales paying $100 a year, while large firms with sales exceeding $10 million pay $2,500.
Even shippers who choose not to pay dues and participate benefit from spreading the good word about Georgia produce.
“G&R Farms does not specifically engage in Georgia Grown promotions, but by virtue of the Vidalia onion program, they are promoting Georgia Grown every day of the Vidalia onion season,” says Walt Dasher, VP of G&R Farms, Glennville, GA. “We also work with retail customers in Georgia who highlight the Georgia Grown message.”
The Vidalia message and the Georgia message work hand in hand.
“Although we don’t use the Georgia Grown message, we promote Vidalia onions, which are only grown in 20 counties in Georgia,” says Dasher. “It is difficult to attribute how much a Georgia Grown message drives sales. What we can say, is messages that highlight our role as a fourth-generation family farm and offer authenticity and transparency in our family story resonate with consumers and their trends to understand where their food comes from and who grows it. We are proud of our humble farming legacy and our Georgia roots.”
G&R collaborates with retailers to support local farming communities, especially the next generation of farmers, and will work with each retailer to customize a program that works best for them, says Dasher.
“For example, we offer a cause marketing program called Growing America’s Farmers that runs May through June. This program raises dollars for FFA scholarships and grants in the state of the retailer’s choice. We do a large promotion with Kroger Atlanta and partner with the Georgia FFA Foundation. This includes social media, in-store marketing and merchandising and even Georgia FFA students in stores for photo opportunities. Most retailers capture double-digit sales by capitalizing on the pride of location and their ability to give back and make a difference in their communities. These events also garner the attention of the Georgia Ag Commissioner and other political officials who understand the power of agriculture in Georgia’s economy.”
The state program works closely with major crop associations and shippers, and with retailers to keep the Georgia Grown message in the public eye.
“The Georgia Grown program has become an essential marketing tool, not only for suppliers but for retailers too,” says Jordan Carter, director of sales and marketing at Leger & Son, Cordele, GA. “Consumers seek transparency and utilizing locally grown programs like Georgia Grown preserves communities while growing economies. Consumers can see the benefit of the program — buying quality produce while supporting local farms.”
“Agriculture is Georgia’s oldest and largest industry,” says Carter. “The Georgia Grown Program is a statewide supporter of local agribusiness that is designed to grow Georgia’s farming economies. The local grown movement is a powerhouse, and it is here to stay.”
Most recently, Georgia Grown developed a well-received television program highlighting the state’s agriculture.
“The Georgia Grown program has recently launched the second season of our award-winning television series ‘A Fork in the Road’ on Georgia Public Broadcasting,” says Kulinski. “The show highlights the stories of Georgia’s food industry, with a primary focus on Georgia’s fruit and vegetables.”
More information can be found at GeorgiaGrown.com or at GPB at www.gpb.org/television/show/fork-in-the-road.